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Game Drive in Karongwe

The Classroom of Karongwe

Shaded by mighty Jackalberry trees, EcoTraining Karongwe Camp waits patiently for its first group of 2020 students. The expectant energy is palatable. The new students will be embarking on a 55-day EcoTraining Field Guide Course which will solidify the bedrock of each participant’s potential career as a field guide.

The unfenced solar-powered camp area lies unobtrusively adjacent to the dry Karongwe riverbed where new students will delight in discovering numerous bird and mammal species. At this time of year, the bush is alive with activity. The summer rains have washed away the dust and replaced it with emerald abundance.
The resident Nyala family feeds below a canopy of Tamboti trees and even they seem anxious to welcome the new students. The lambs bounce around excitedly jostling for front row seats and above them in the eaves, Paradise Flycatchers flit in a boastful aerial display.

Plants

“The summer rains have washed away the dust and replaced it with emerald abundance.”

The open-air classroom entices all sounds and smells of the wilderness in. A library of textbooks and a collection of skulls, tortoise shells and animal bones are lined tidily for students to explore. Yet the space beyond the formal classroom boundaries will invite students on a much greater journey of enquiry beyond their wildest dreams. Every bird that chirps, every leaf that falls, every flower that blooms and every insect that rattles in song is an opportunity to gain knowledge and connection with the fauna and flora of the Lowveld wilderness.

Karongwe in summer

The rains bring Karongwe bush to life

At the edge of the camp lies the fireplace. As dusk stretches the shadows and awakens the stars, the earth has the power to draw everyone magnetically in. It is around this blazing campfire that learning will transcend facts and figures and where wisdom will be shared through storytelling.

As an African barred owlet hoots somewhere in the distance and his message for the new students is clear… “Protect this wilderness, for you are the guardians of its future.”

Karongwe camp wildlife

The beauty of Karongwe

It is a privilege to be an EcoTraining student because you hold these wild spaces in your hands and in your heart, and have the collective ability to nurture it for future generations. Karongwe is a classroom sanctuary where custodians of nature are born and inspired.

Good luck to all the students of 2020!

Lioness

Mashatu madness | Dramatic scenes

With a new group of students arriving at the EcoTraining Mashatu Camp, the instructors needed to show them around the reserve so they could start orientating themselves. They started out on morning safari as usual, and if you believe it, by 05:30 am it was already 30°C, so with that, it only made sense to visit one of the major water points in the riverbed.

The instructors and students clambered over East-West ridge, using rocky crossing which ensured that any students that were maybe dozing off were now very much awake! Next up was the fever berry forest, where they stopped for a bit to talk about the medicinal uses of this tree and made spinning tops out of the developing fruit. This is a game played by Tswana children and it proved to be more difficult than anticipated.

Once moving out of the fever berry forest, a tawny eagle was spotted posing beautifully on a dead tree, no one thought much of it, as there is a pair that are seen almost every day in the area. Then someone spotted some jackals in the distance and at that very moment, something caught their eyes…

Tawny Eagle in flight

Tawny Eagle (c) Tayla McCurdy

There was movement through the foliage that lined the rivers banks. Instructor Tayla McCurdy grabbed her binoculars, then explained to the students that there was a lioness coming their way with her cubs trailing behind her. One of the students then informed Tayla that the jackals were feeding on some kind of carcass, it turned out to be a fully-grown eland – the world’s largest antelope!

The lioness and cubs’ bellies were all bursting at the seam, the temperature had now climbed a fair amount and she wasn’t interested in eating but was instead looking for some shade. This meant that she had to move away from the carcass, and lead the cubs to a cool spot to rest for the day. She trundled along with her little ones in tow back towards the fever berry forest.

Lion cubs

Lion cubs in Mashatu (c) Tayla McCurdy

The vehicles were not covered so, sitting in an open safari vehicle (the best kind) lathering on sunscreen, quenching their thirst the students were also sitting down-wind from the fresh stench of the carcass. So, why did they not move out of the sighting into a more comfortable location?

A: Sometimes you need to learn to stomach horrid smells as a safari guide (this was mild).

B: The instructors were proactive in their guiding and guessed what might happen and wanted to be in the perfect position where they would not be interfering with the sighting. Thankfully, they were right! The vultures arrived out of nowhere and started circling above them, then one by one they started landing.

This was an impressive scene and comical at the same time. Vultures are not the most agile birds when it comes to landing, they bound about at great speed before coming to a complete halt. Then, in a very gangster-like movement with wings spread out they ran towards the carcass. There is always lots of squabbling amongst the various species, with the most dominant species being white-backed vultures and then a few Cape vultures joined the feeding frenzy.

Next minute the lioness burst out of the bush, she trotted angrily towards the scene scaring away as many of the thieving birds as she could. Just as quickly as the vultures arrived, they vanished into thin air, with the exception of a few brave souls that lingered on the tops of nearby trees.

In the video you have just watched, there are many hardships, firstly the lioness on her own trying to successfully raise, protect and feed her cubs, they too were battling what looked like mange. Then the second is the constant battle between predator and scavenger, the vultures, in the end, decimated the carcass and the lioness left the area with her cubs, luckily there are plenty of animals for her to hunt in Mashatu. Every single person on the vehicle were in awe of the sighting, some may have to wait many years to witness a spectacle like that again.

If you want to experience a possible sighting like this, or even have a dream of guiding people in the African wilderness. Why not look at the various courses we have on offer? Or contact enquires on enquires@ecotraining.co.za to learn more.

Want to know if summer’s here | Listen for a Cuckoo

They may have a bad rap in literature (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Midwich Cuckoos for example) but there are few more fascinating birds than cuckoos. In Southern Africa, cuckoos are all migrants, except for the Klaas’s Cuckoo which is a resident in some lowland areas. This means that they are absent from the region for most of the year, only moving down from further north in Africa and Asia during the rainy season.

While cuckoos tend to migrate from as early as September, typically most arrive in late October to November. Most of the 15 species we have in South Africa are intra-African migrants, which means that they come down from countries further north within Africa, down to the south of the continent. There are also a few Palearctic migrants, namely the Common (European) Cuckoo and the Lesser Cuckoo, with the Common Cuckoo coming from China, Korea and Japan and the Lesser Cuckoo coming from Afghanistan and the foothills of the Himalayas. These Palearctic migrants are, however, much less common than the intra-African migrants.

One of the reasons cuckoos migrate down to our neck of the woods is to feast upon the vast insect numbers that come to life after the early summer rains have fallen – specifically to eat the processionary worms (hairy caterpillars) that you will often see huddled together on tree branches, particularly on the Velvet Corkwood tree (Commiphora mollis). In fact, cuckoos are specialised in eating the hairy caterpillars, which are – for good reason – avoided by most other birds. For their meals, cuckoos smash the caterpillars against branches and other objects to remove the caterpillar’s irritating hairs. These caterpillars are the larval stage of the reticulate bagnest moth (Anaphe reticulata).

In spite of their dark reputation (see the books mentioned above and the saying “you’ve gone cuckoo”!), cuckoos are renowned for having very musical songs. That said, not all species are known for holding a tune with the Clamator cuckoos (Levaillant’s, Jacobin and great spotted cuckoo’s) have more of a chattering, unmusical call. But a few have such characteristic songs that it has resulted in their actual common name. For example, the red-chested cuckoo is called the Piet-my-vrou in Afrikaans, which is an onomatopoeic rendition of the distinct “quid-pro-quo” sounding call it monotonously sings. The Diederick cuckoo is called a Diederikkie in Afrikaans which is also a reference to its call which sounds like “dee-dee-deederick”.

Most cuckoos that migrate to Southern Africa breed during their stay here. Their breeding behaviour is very interesting and unlike that of most other birds. All of the locally occurring cuckoos are what we call “brood parasites”. A “brood parasite” is a bird that lays its eggs or egg in another bird’s nest, in the hopes that their clutch will outcompete the host’s eggs and the host bird will incubate and raise the cuckoo’s chicks. This is done for a few reasons: the cuckoo expends less energy as it does not need to raise its own chick and by laying eggs in a few different nests, the risk is spread and therefore the chances of the chicks being successfully raised is increased. To achieve this parasitism, cuckoos have developed techniques to trick their host birds: most cuckoos have developed what is called “egg-mimicry” in which their eggs look similar in size, colour and shape to that of the host’s egg. Typically, the cuckoo will also evict an egg from the host nest, for each one she lays. When they hatch, some cuckoos – like the African emerald cuckoo and the Diederick – will even evict unhatched host eggs. After hatching (and while still blind) the hatchling will back up to the host’s egg, collect it in a special cavity and then toss it over the edge of the nest. They may do this to the host’s young chicks as well. Alternatively, the cuckoo chick will hack and peck the host chicks to death once they have hatched – and which might just help explain their reputation in popular culture! However, in some cases, the parasite and host chicks are raised together without any hostility.

Another interesting point to add is that males often perform “courtship-feeding”, in which they feed caterpillars to females in an attempt to court them. This often leads people to believe that the cuckoo is feeding one of its own, yet this is not true as no local cuckoo species raises its young.

Cuckoos are amazing birds and are fascinating even to non-twitchers, particularly for their long-distance travel, nesting behaviour and beautiful melodic calls. Unfortunately, however, catching sight of a cuckoo is not easy as they are only seen – and more often just heard – in the rainy season.

This, however, just makes their presence more special as they are here to tell us that summer has well and truly begun!

Are you keen on birds or learning more about them, have a look at our Birding in the Bush course we offer.

Still want to learn something more today, have a look at the bird quizzes we have available:

Birds & Birding

Animal Eyesight 

Bird Challenge

 

EcoTraining Quiz: Mammal General Knowledge

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EcoTraining Quiz: General Knowledge | Part 2

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EcoTraining Quiz: General Knowledge | Part 1

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Hyena in mud

The highly intelligent hyena

It sometimes seems that the trio of hyaenas from Disney’s famous movie the Lion King is a representation of the species as a whole. There can be nothing further from the truth, as hyenas are not cowardly, skulking scavengers that they are made out to be.

Found in most wilderness regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the spotted hyena plays a very important role in many African eco-systems.

Much like other animals that have stripes or spots, the pattern on each animal is unique, allowing for easy identification.

Spotted hyena on the grass

Spotted Hyena (c) David Batzofin

These large animals can be found is a vast variety of habitats and have even been found at altitudes as high as 4,100m!

Although they have their cubs in a den, they do like to lie in shaded hollows, culverts and even pools of water during the heat of the day. If you have ever had the privilege to travel to Tanzania or Kenya, you will see hyenas wallowing midday like a hippo in muddy pools of water.

Hippo and hyena in the water

Hyena and hippo in East Africa (c) Tayla McCurdy

Most people believe that hyena scavenges the majority of their food, but this is not necessarily the truth. They kill up to 95% of their food, with the remaining percentage being scavenged or stolen. Hyenas have excellent hearing and can hear the sound of predators on a kill from up to 10 km away. They will eat almost anything on offer, including fish, pythons and tortoises if nothing else is available. The amount of scavenging versus the amount of hunting a hyena does is all dependent on the population dynamics of other large predators in the region.

Hyenas in East Africa

Hyenas (c) Tayla McCurdy

Hyenas exert a far greater bite pressure than any other land predator on the continent, they can crush bones that other carnivores cannot eat.

The main rivalry for hyenas are lions. And in many areas, where lions do exist, hyenas are regarded as the dominant apex predator. In the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania, hyenas and lions are in a constant battle with each other, in what can only be described as a gladiator’s arena of life and death where often, due to numbers and cunning, hyenas are the victor.

Living in clans as they do, they can be observed to be extremely social. And considering that these clans can exceed 50 in number, it is no easy task. The clans are matriarchal, as the females are larger than their male counterparts and can outweigh them by as much as 30%.

Hyenas communicate via a range of vocalizations varying from whoops and grunts to almost demented human-like laughter. Hence they are often referred to as ‘Laughing Hyenas’. Each call has a specific use and is therefore easily distinguished and interpreted by the rest of the clan. Sitting and listening to a pack of hyenas as they call to each other in the dead of night, is a cacophony that will not be easily forgotten.

When cubs are born at the den site, they get to interact with each other and thus build up a clan hierarchy. The female offspring of the dominant matriarch is known as a Princess and will be afforded special privileges by the rest of the clan.

Hyena and cub

Hyena and cub (c) David Batzofin

Built like they are running uphill; they can attain speeds of up to 60 kph, however, more importantly, they maintain that speed for long period of time, enabling them to tier their prey out before catching it and ripping it to shreds.

Female hyenas have a pseudo-penis, making the animals difficult to sex when young, though as adults’, females are easily noticeable due to their size and weight difference to the males. Clans are territorial and will defend their areas aggressively. They mark their areas with dung and a pungent paste secreted from their anal glands.

Hyenas are one of the most intelligent animals on the African continent and arguably the most intelligent predator bar the African Wild Dog.

So, the next time you are on a Safari and encounter these amazing creators, take the time to watch them and learn more about their complex and interesting behaviours.

If you want to know more about EcoTraining, have a look at our website and some of the courses we offer.

Watch and listen to the incredible sounds below in an EcoTraining TV video.

What makes Kenya great again?

10 new things that everyone should know when Kenya forms part of their bucket list Safari

EcoTraining is launching the accredited FGASA Field Guide course in the Masai Mara, Kenya

EcoTraining, South Africa’s largest and oldest safari guide and wildlife training organisation will be offering the well-known FGASA level 1 (NQF 2) accredited Field Guide qualification in Kenya from the 14th September this year. A recognised accreditation in Kenya, the launch of this course also means lower rates for participants who want to acquire this qualification at a rate of USD 7,970.00.

Over the duration of fifty five days, participants on this course will traverse not one, not two but three different conservancies encompassing over 16,000 hectares, providing students access to a diverse range of biomes and elements that make this a truly sought after course in the industry.

Students will stay in unfenced tented and banda accommodation over the duration of the course. This truly immersive ‘live-in’ experience will allow participants to connect with the natural environment and develop their situational awareness which is an important part of becoming a field guide professional.

This course provides a solid foundation for many environmental careers in the wildlife, lodge and conservation sector. What makes this course so unique is its relevance to the natural environment of Kenya. Covering a broad spectrum of subjects, students also learn about the cohabitation and conflict between the community herdsmen with their livestock, crops and wildlife.

The course contains a combination of formal lectures and practical field experience, affording students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills whether it be on game drives or on-foot guided walks. Participants will have the opportunity to be assessed for their EcoTraining and FGASA Field Guide (NQF2) qualification which is conducted by EcoTraining instructors who are accredited FGASA assessors.

EcoTraining is of the firm belief that conservation is about people effecting positive change in the world. This is a milestone for EcoTraining in the plight for providing more access to environmental education in Kenya.

For more information about this upcoming course contact enquiries@ecotraining.co.za

Can you see yourself doing a bush walk?

The EcoQuest course is not all about dashing in a vehicle from one Big 5 sighting to the next. It is about becoming intimate with the ecosystems and the biodiversity of the area around the Karongwe camp.

Living the life I choose, one choice at a time

“I have seen the seasons change and lived through that in a much more immersive way and for the first time, I’ve truly understood it.”

Zebra and wildebeest migration_edited

The Kenya Safari Guide programme with EcoTraining in the land of the greatest global wildlife migration

It happens once a year, why not make it an educational lifetime experience?

Where will YOUR off the beaten path take you?

You don’t need to be born in Africa to have Africa in your blood. The longing to be connected with the African wilderness is a way of life for a lot of people from all around the world and an unexplained marvel.